Head injuries from car accidents are a leading cause of disability in adults. Here’s how to recognize signs of serious head injury.
Drivers and passengers can suffer a head injury in any auto accident, at any speed. Some accident victims can recover from minor head injuries like cuts and contusions in a few days. Others won’t be so lucky, and may suffer disabling brain injuries or death.
Don’t wait to seek medical attention after an auto accident. Symptoms of potentially life-threatening head injuries may develop slowly, over hours or days. Learn to recognize the warning signs.
5 Common Car Accident Head Injuries:
- Skull Fractures
- Bleeding on the Brain
- Detached Retina in the Eye
- Brain Concussions
- Traumatic Brain Injury
An open head injury is one where the force of impact is significant enough to penetrate the soft tissue of the scalp into the skull. When this occurs, the skull can fracture.
Types of skull fractures:
- Linear skull fractures are the most common in car accidents. The skull fractures, but not enough for it to expose the brain’s soft tissue.
- Depressed skull fractures occur when the force of impact presses broken sections of skull bone into the brain cavity. Bone shards may penetrate and damage brain tissue.
- Diastatic skull fractures describe the separation of the bony plates of the skull that fused as we grew from children to adults. Surgery is required to reattach the parts.
- Basilar skull fractures occur at the base of the skull. Treatment depends on the damage to the underlying structures, like the brain and spinal cord.
Confusion, dizziness, and headache may be experienced with any head injury. More symptoms of a skull fracture are listed below.
Signs and symptoms that indicate a skull fracture include:
- Lump or swelling on the head
- Bleeding from the scalp or forehead
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of consciousness
- Bruising under the eyes or behind the ears
- Leaking of clear or bloody fluid from ears or nose
How doctors treat a skull fracture depends on the severity of the fracture and the age and condition of the patient. Open surgery or microsurgery may be necessary to close wounds, remove bone shards, and re-align the skull plates.
Blunt force trauma to the head, as often happens in car wrecks, can lead to damaged blood vessels in the brain, with or without a skull fracture. The medical term for bleeding in the brain is Intracranial Hemorrhage. “Intra” means inside, and “cranial” means the skull.
Hematomas are a type of brain bleed common with trauma:
- Epidural hematoma occurs when blood clots form inside the skull, but the clot is on top of the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain.
- Subdural hematomas occur when blood clots form inside the skull within the cerebrospinal fluid. At first, the blood doesn’t penetrate the brain’s soft tissue. As the bleeding continues, it takes up more and more space, crowding out and damaging brain tissue.
Subdural hematomas can expand quickly, causing great harm to the brain. A fast-growing subdural hematoma is called acute, meaning it’s happening quickly. An acute subdural hematoma is a life-threatening emergency.
Symptoms of a brain hemorrhage depend on the area of the brain involved. Symptoms of a brain bleed are similar to a stroke.
Symptoms of a brain bleed:
- Sudden tingling, weakness, numbness, or paralysis of the face, arm or leg, particularly on one side of the body
- Sudden headache
- Nausea and vomiting
- Confused or slurred speech
- Dizziness or loss of coordination
- Change in level of consciousness or alertness, sleepiness or coma
- Trouble breathing and abnormal heart rate (if bleed is located in the brainstem)
The goal of treatment for brain bleeds like subdural hematoma is to relieve pressure on important parts of the brain. Small hematomas may be treated in the ICU with medications to slow bleeding and careful observation with repeated CT scans.
Large or growing hematomas may be treated by opening a flap in the skull or drilling a hole to drain off the excess blood.
The retina is a sensitive layer of tissue lining the inside of your eye. The retina sends information through the optic nerve to your brain.
In a car accident, trauma to the head or face can “detach” or pull a portion of the retina away from its normal place in your eye. If not treated promptly, a detached retina can lead to permanent vision loss.
A detached retina is a medical emergency. If you experience symptoms, get immediate medical help. Be sure to tell the doctor how you hit your head in the collision.
Symptoms of a detached retina:
- Sudden or gradual increase in the number of “floaters” in your field of vision
- Flashes of light in your eye
- Something like a curtain or veil in your vision
Ophthalmologists treat a detached retina with surgery, cryosurgery, or laser techniques. Prompt treatment can save your eyesight.
The most common closed head injury is a brain concussion. A closed head injury is one that doesn’t penetrate or open the skull. Instead, the injuries are internal.
Brain concussions are more than a mild inconvenience. Thanks to advances in medical science, we now know that even “mild” concussions are not to be taken lightly.
According to specialists from the Mayo Clinic:
The terms “mild,” “moderate” and “severe” are used to describe the effect of the injury on brain function. A mild injury to the brain is still a serious injury that requires prompt attention and an accurate diagnosis.
The skull encases and protects the brain. Inside the skull is cerebrospinal fluid, which acts as a shock absorber to protect the brain upon impact. When the impact is severe enough, the cerebrospinal fluid moves and the brain hits the skull, causing a concussion.
Concussions are a type of traumatic brain injury that may be mild, moderate, or severe.
Most people fully recover from their first mild concussion. Unfortunately, some concussions can lead to life-altering complications.
Symptoms of concussion include:
- Loss of consciousness, even briefly
- No loss of consciousness, but feeling dazed or “out of it”
- Blurred vision
- Drowsiness or sleep changes
- Memory loss
- Mood Changes
Most auto accident victims recover from a concussion within two or three weeks. Treatment for a concussion consists of mental and physical rest, with a gradual return to normal activities. Over-the-counter pain relievers may be taken for headaches.
When symptoms persist for months, doctors may diagnose Post Concussive Syndrome (PCS). Individuals suffering from PCS experience concussion symptoms triggered by mild activity, or even at rest. PCS often limits the victim’s ability to work, socialize, or enjoy activities of daily living.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is one of the most common causes of disability and death in adults.³
Brain trauma may cause a wide range of short or long-term complications, affecting thinking, sensation, language, or emotions. These changes may lead to problems with memory, communication, personality changes, as well as depression and increased risk for dementia.
Even a mild TBI will affect your brain cells, for at least a while. Swelling and bleeding in the brain may be causing significant damage in the days and weeks following a car crash.
Symptoms of TBI are similar to those of a concussion, although the symptoms may be more pronounced.
Severe traumatic brain injuries can include these warning signs:
- Loss of consciousness for several minutes or longer
- Headaches that won’t go away
- Continued vomiting or nausea
- Clear fluid draining from the eyes or ears (cerebrospinal fluid)
- Dilated or uneven pupils (the black center of the eye)
- Can’t be awakened from sleep
Diffuse axonal injury (DAI) is a catastrophic type of TBI where the long fibers in the brain (axons) are torn when the brain violently shifts and rotates inside the bony skull. DAI usually results in a coma. The changes in the brain are often microscopic and not visible on CT or MRI scans.
Long Term Effects of Brain Injury
Individuals who survive a severe traumatic brain injury may be left with impairments or disabilities in one or many areas.
TBI disabilities can affect these areas:
- Cognition: The ability to process information or follow directions, memory, judgment, and attention span
- Motor skills: Paralysis, spasticity balance, coordination
- Senses: Hearing, sight, smell, touch
- Communication: Speaking, understanding speech, choosing words, reading, writing
- Functioning: Dressing, bathing, eating, paying bills, driving a car
- Social skills: Relationships, making friends, responding to others
- Regulation: Sleeping, bowel, or bladder control
- Psychology: Mood changes, anxiety, depression, aggression
Following emergency measures taken to preserve the patient’s life, treatment for severe brain injuries focuses on rehabilitation and supportive care.
TBI victims may transition from the hospital to a rehab center or skilled nursing home. They receive a variety of therapies: physical, vocational, and emotional. This helps them re-learn skills and adjust to the brain damage caused by the accident. Compensation in head injury cases like these must account for these services.
Check for injuries and call 911 after any motor vehicle accident. Tell the dispatcher if you hit your head in the collision, anyone lost consciousness, or if you see anyone who may have symptoms of a head injury. Keep in mind the dazed person with slurred speech from the other car may be injured rather than intoxicated.
Head Injury in Children
Older children with head injuries will exhibit many of the same symptoms as an adult.
Head injury symptoms in babies and toddlers may be harder to spot. Changes to watch for include swelling of the head or the baby’s soft spot, inconsolable crying or fussing, vomiting more than once, balancing difficulties when sitting or walking, and being unresponsive.
Head Injury in Elderly Adults
Adults over the age of 65 are at higher risk of dangerous head trauma, and may be harder to diagnose. Always alert emergency medical providers if a car accident victim regularly takes aspirin or blood thinners.
If your family member has dementia, keep an eye out for changes in their behavior only you might recognize that warrant further evaluation.
Get Medical Treatment Immediately
Prompt medical treatment after a car accident is necessary for your health and will also help your insurance claim. Always get a thorough medical evaluation after an automobile accident. If you aren’t taken directly to the hospital from the accident scene, you still need to be evaluated the day of the crash.
If your primary physician isn’t available, go to the nearest emergency department or urgent care center. Tell them you’ve been in a car accident and describe how you hit your head or were knocked around in the collision.
Severe injury symptoms may appear right after the accident, while others may not appear until days or even weeks after the crash. You or a loved one could have a life-threatening head injury and not realize the danger.
Refusing treatment at the scene or waiting for a few days to see how you feel is a huge mistake. The insurance company will jump at the chance to deny your claim by arguing that your injuries didn’t happen in the accident.
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